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People line up for Covid-19 vaccinations in Linquan county, in eastern China’s Anhui province, on May 13. Picture: AP

ReviewDoom: The Politics of Catastrophe – Niall Ferguson explores Covid-19 and other disasters of the past, as well as those yet to come

  • Ferguson’s latest book is devoted to putting Covid-19 in context, with comparisons with other plagues and catastrophes such as economic collapses and famines
  • Overall it is an informative, amusing and thought-provoking read that is full of steadying good sense for these troubled times

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson. Penguin

Economic historian Niall Ferguson opens his new survey of human responses to disasters with a mea culpa.

Back in early 2020, as cases of Covid-19 emerged worldwide, Ferguson was public­ly condemning complacency in the face of potential disaster. Yet he continued to fly frequently around three continents and often found it too tiresome to wear a mask.

He waits until Chapter 9 to provide the beginnings of a history of the disease and the world’s assorted responses.

This is already dated, but we now live so much in the present tense – When can I get vaccinated? When can I see friends and family again? ­– that already the last quarter of 2019 seems like ancient history, and Ferguson’s summary timely and refreshing.

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson.

But much of Doom is devoted to putting Covid-19 in context – to comparisons with other plagues, with other catastrophes such as economic collapses and famines, and with other responses at other times.

This is an investigation into the nature of contagion whether it is by bacilli or bad ideas, the importance of networks to their spread, and how good governance, or the lack of it, predicates the final death toll.

Ferguson rejects the ideas that history is driven by all-powerful individual leaders or that it is in any way cyclic, and considers any attempt to divide disasters into the natural and man-made as misleading – “all disasters are at some level man-made political disasters, even if they originate with new pathogens”.

He examines Indian economist Amartya Sen’s claim that the more a government is accountable to an electorate the smaller the likelihood of famine.

“An interesting question, however, is why Sen’s theory does not apply to all forms of disaster. If famines can be successfully avoided, or at least mitigated, when governments are more accountable, why is the same not true of earthquakes, floods, wildfires, or pandemics?”

Despite the apparent correlation between populist leaders and high numbers of Covid-19-related deaths, he denies that complete responsibility for disasters can be laid exclusively at the feet even of absolute dictators.

“The power of such individuals is a function of the complex network of eco­nomic, social, and political relations over which they preside,” he argues, thus giving Chinese President Xi Jinping a portion of the blame, but not the whole meal.

But Ferguson is clear on the origins of Covid-19’s worldwide distribution – a consequence of cover-ups, censorship, and failure to act.

“All that mattered in the first phase of the pandemic was effective (not geo­graphic) distance from Wuhan. Between December 1, 2019 and January 23, 2020 forty-six direct flights flew from Wuhan to Europe (Paris, London, Rome, and Moscow) and 19 to the United States (either New York or San Francisco).”

There’s a sense that we’ve all been here before but failed to learn any lessons – China repeating 2002’s Sars-related denial, deception and distraction but with far more catastrophic results.

In the West pundits have been making comparisons with the “Spanish flu” of 1918, but the better parallel is with the almost-forgotten “Asian flu” pandemic of 1957. This began in China, travelled out from Hong Kong via the shipping network, and then around the US via the social mixing of teenagers.

This eventually killed around 1.1 million people worldwide, which would correspond to about 2.7 million today – on a similar scale to Covid-19, so far at least.

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The “Spanish flu” was about 150 times worse. In New York and Chicago no precautions were taken beyond staggering of office opening hours so as to reduce congestion on the subway system, with dire consequences.

In San Francisco “a motley coalition of civil libertarians, Christian Scientists, and economic interest groups [ …] coalesced in the Anti-Mask League”. Change a few names and dates and this century-old news could be today’s lead story.

Although Doom’s references to everything from ancient Greek dramatists through Machiavelli’s uncle (given an experimental plague remedy made from rue and honey in 1479) to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are entertaining, the book could benefit from a little paring down.

But overall Doom is an informative, amusing and thought-provoking read that puts the current pandemic in context, and is full of steadying good sense for these often hysterical times.